Shah Rukh Khan has had a busy few weeks, almost single-handedly promoting his new film, the crime drama Raees (Wealthy).
The 51-year-old Indian superstar, who visited Dubai for a press conference and meet-and-greet with fans at Bollywood Parks on Saturday, has had to do without help from his co-star, Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, while publicising the film in India and overseas.
A recent ban by the Film and Television Producers Guild of India on Pakistani artists prevented 32-year-old Mahira from participating in pre-release events. In addition, the Mumbai-based far-right Hindu nationalist party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), has threatened violence at cinemas screening films starring Pakistani artists.
The ban reflects growing tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi after the attack in September last year on an Indian military base, which was blamed on Pakistani militants.
Bollywood has been hit hard by the ban. Some of the biggest blockbusters of the past two decades featured Pakistani talent, including actors, musicians and singers such as Ali Zafar, Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan– all household names on the subcontinent.
Raees – which opens on Wednesday, the day before India’s Republic Day – is not the first film affected by the ban. Filmmaker Karan Johar’s romantic drama Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (This Heart Is Complicated) nearly didn’t make it into cinemas in October because the cast included Pakistani heart-throb Fawad Khan.
Like Raees, it was completed before the ban was introduced, but still paid a heavy price. Indian media reported a desperate Johar was forced to make a deal with MNS, and donated 50 million rupees to India’s Army Welfare Fund. The news caused an uproar in Bollywood. Actor, singer and filmmaker Farhan Akhtar – one of the producers of Raees, alongside SRK’s wife, Gauri Khan, and Ritesh Sidwani – told the Indian Express of his dismay about what had happened.
He went on to say that the deal set “a terrible precedent”.
He was right. With a potential multimillion-rupee blockbuster on the line, SRK visited MNS chief Raj Thackeray last month to seek “permission” to screen Raees.
Thackeray later said SRK had met him to “inform that rumours about Mahira Khan promoting Raees are false”.
SRK is said to have assured the MNS that his co-star would not be a part of promotions in India, a declaration that seems to have been extended to the international campaign.
Earlier, Khan and director Gauri Shinde also reportedly brokered a deal for their romantic drama Dear Zindagi, which stars Pakistani actor Ali Zafar and was released in December.
Weeks before the release, SRK refused to take questions about the ban during an interview with The National.
Last week, there were reports that Mahira had been spotted in Dubai at Mall of the Emirates, and would join SRK for an appearance at Bollywood Parks. However, this turned out not to be the case.
Despite the restrictions, Mahira did some promotion work of her own – posting on Twitter a photo of herself wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a dialogue from Raees.
She also tweeted a link to fellow actress Alizay Jaffer’s essay on the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan. It is an impassioned plea that resonates on both sides of the border with people frustrated by the impact the ban has had on entertainment and music, a previously neutral space now invaded by political partisanship.
“It’s strange, this affinity with India,” Jaffer writes. “I find myself getting increasingly upset at the abuse and hatred tossed from one border to another, with little rationale apart from the 69-year-old chips on our shoulders.
“These chips have, over time, turned into boulders, and who doesn’t crumble under the weight of those?”
• Raees will be in cinemas from Wednesday.